LOS ANGELES — The Orlando Magic can downplay it all they want, but their matchup Sunday night against the Los Angeles Lakers and the superstar who spurned them meant so much more than a typical regular-season game.
For one night at least, the Magic erased the pain of Dwight Howard’s messy departure and the frustrations his exit set in motion. They also embarrassed Howard by forcing him to confront his Achilles’ heel, his awful free-throw shooting.
Fouling Howard repeatedly late in the game and sharing the ball as well as they have all season, the Magic erased a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter and stunned the Lakers 113-103 at Staples Center.
“It means a lot, honestly,” Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said.
“We can all say it was just a basketball game, but we know because of things that happened in the past, especially for our fans, it means a lot more to come get this victory. A lot of guys that are on this team now didn’t go through what we went through last year: myself, J.J. and Glen and Turk. We went through some things.”
Arron Afflalo, one of the players the Magic received in the Howard trade, scored a team-high 30 points, and he pumped his fist after some of his bigger baskets.
Nelson, whose cell phone was inundated by text messages after the game, scored 19 points and dished out 13 assists.
Glen Davis scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
“We played big tonight,” Davis said.
“It means a lot, showing the hard work that we’ve been putting in and just staying together as a group. And, also, it gives back home the fans something to be proud of, something to feel good about, that we’re a young team and we’re trying to make a difference.”
Howard finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds, and he tantalized Lakers fans with the explosiveness that made him a dominating player with the Magic for almost a decade.
But he struggled once again at the free-throw line. He made just nine of his 21 attempts, including seven of his 14 tries in the fourth quarter.
For years, opponents’ Hack-a-Howard strategy frustrated the Magic. Teams would foul Howard because it gave them a better chance to win than allowing Howard to shoot close to the hoop or dunk the ball.
On Sunday night, the Magic made the ploy work to their advantage. Los Angeles led Orlando 84-81 when Howard and Kobe Bryant checked back into the game with 6:47 left. From that point on, the Magic fouled Howard seven times.
The Magic outscored the Lakers 32-19 the rest of the way.
After the game ended, Howard went straight to the Lakers’ locker room without shaking Magic players’ hands or saying anything to the four former teammates who made the trip to California: Nelson, Davis, J.J. Redick and Ish Smith.
“He didn’t talk to me,” Davis said. “I didn’t talk to him. I’m here to play basketball. I’m not here to be buddies. Once we talk off the court, it’s cool. But other than that, I have nothing to say.”
Howard was asked “how emotional” it was to play his former team.
“It wasn’t emotional,” he said.
For the Magic and their fans, it was emotional.
The team snapped a three-game losing streak as it started a five-game West Coast roadtrip.
But, more importantly, it may have given the franchise and its fans a badly needed jolt of adrenaline.
Second-year center Nik Vucevic, who had struggled recently, scored 17 points, collected 12 rebounds and blocked four shots. Rookie big man Kyle O’Quinn, a second-round draft pick, scored six points in about eight minutes.
The Magic dished out 34 assists, a season-high.
“That’s the first thing I mentioned to those guys after the game,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. “We played for each other, and we played with each other, and that was great from beginning to end.”
One of Howard’s reasons for wanting a trade was that he wanted to play in a bigger market. Los Angeles provides that. Sunday’s game lured an announced crowd of 18,997, which included actor Will Ferrell, soccer star David Beckham, actor Johnny Galecki, actress Regina King and baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.
Howard’s agent, Dan Fegan, and Howard’s manager, Kevin Samples, watched the game from seats along a baseline, just a few feet from the Magic bench.
No one on Orlando’s roster complained afterward that Howard didn’t shake hands after the final buzzer sounded.
“That’s fine,” Nelson said. “Certain guys don’t shake hands after the game.
“I don’t have any hard feelings to the guy. He made a decision to do what he did. He’s on the team that he’s on. I’m here in Orlando, where I want to be. I just wish him the best of luck. I’m not going to go up and hug him and kiss him or anything like that. I think my coach would be mad at me.”
Orlando’s win doesn’t change the big picture for the Magic (6-10) or the Lakers (8-9).
The Magic will remain in rebuilding mode.
The Lakers will remain contenders in the Western Conference, albeit contenders who continue to be frustrated by injuries to Steve Nash and Steve Blake and by losses to teams they should beat.
“There’s no magic potion,” said their new coach, Mike D’Antoni. “Again, we know what the problem is. Defensively, we just weren’t good tonight.”
For the Magic, some of their most effective defense came when they fouled Howard as he jogged or walked upcourt following changes of possession.
“I didn’t have a script coming into the game,” Vaughn said. “I think the game played itself and such that we, as a coaching staff, were able to use our fouls wisely.”
The Magic wound up beating Howard — and they did it in a way that embarrassed him.
One Orlando fan who sat several rows up from the court yelled, “How’s it feel, Dwight?”
One Lakers fan sounded frustrated with the Hack-a-Howard tactic as he walked out of the seating bowl. “We came to see a basketball game,” he grumbled.
In his postgame Q-and-A with reporters, Howard was asked whether his first matchup against his former team closed a chapter with the Magic.
“The chapter was closed when I got traded,” Howard said.
If that’s the case, then what happened Sunday night at least provided an uplifting epilogue for the Magic and for their fans.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times